PATEK PHILIPPE- THE AUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY BY NICHOLAS FOULKES
Published in 2016, this is a unique biography not written about any individual but about the company Patek Philippe itself. Nicholas Foulkes cleverly treats the company as if it were a person and the biography begins with the birth of Patek, the company’s founder until 2016 describing the many and various ups and downs of the company including economic downturns and war, their technical progress and all the major figures crucial to the company’s success. The book is quite large in size and takes considerable weight so it cannot be read like a novel and must be placed on a coffee table or otherwise to read. But once properly stabilized it is quite an easy read and it also reads quite long.
If you feel like skipping the book, a really concise and interesting history of Patek Philippe can be found at Watches.tv and this video almost seems like it follows this biography. The author Nicholas Foulkes is a British journalist, book author, editor and public speaker. His topics are varied and not solely focused on watches but does have an interest in luxury goods in general. He strikes me as a man who houses a passion for the finer things in life and luckily has made a career out of it.
The book begins with the birth of the company’s founder Antoni de Patek in Poland during the Napoloeonic era. It follows his exile into France and Switzerland and his lifelong quest for Polish repatriation from the Russians and their Tsar. During his exile he made a career of watchmaking and met Jean Adrien Philippe a Frenchman who developed and perfected the keyless winding mechanism which revolutionized the way a timepiece was powered.
Like a novel, the book continues during Patek’s many celebratory moments and most importantly their tribulations which were often and plentiful. The company has survived during two centuries of war, economic depressions, particularly in Europe and the United States, and still managed to survive through all these catastrophic adversities, the most recent being the “Quartz Crisis” in the 70s. The book emphasizes Patek’s resilience to adversity and describes how their CEOs at the time weathered through those turbulent times, the most vivid example being when Patek melted and sold their gold reserves to pay off their debt and support their employees. One would think a biography about a company would be dull reading, but Patek’s history is dramatic enough to be read like a romantic tragedy. What transpired not only in real life but in the book as well is captivating.
The book also places emphasis on the major players in Patek Philippe’s direction starting with Patek and Philippe, then Jean Pfister and eventually the takeover by the Stern brothers who were renowned for their “cadrans”, or dials in French. The Stern family, who saved the company, currently owns and runs the company independently and privately with no shareholders just like when the company was originally founded, which I find quite remarkable in this day and age. I am by no means an entrepreneur, but for a luxury watch company to sustain itself through the peaks and valleys of the various world economic turmoils without the help of external or public investors is a remarkable feat. It is a testament to their management, direction and vision but most importantly displays their resilience to stay the course and not buckle their philosophy. It is befitting or ironic whatever the word may be, that their timepieces tick exactly the same way. A fitting example would be during the 1970s “Quartz Crisis”, Phillipe Stern decidedly determined that Patek would not mass produce digital watches contrary to the direction the world was taking. He firmly stayed rooted in the belief that people would still appreciate and cherish mechanical pieces for their hand crafted beauty and for what they were, works of art. Thus, unabated, he continued to produce mechanical watches even though at the time, the profit of the future was looking predominantly digital.
I found the company’s hardships and the navigation out the most interesting chapters of the book, however the book does mention the many joyous moments of the company’s journey from the many medals won at horological and world fairs and the purchases from prominent members of royalty including Queen Victoria.
The book does not focus on their most significant timepieces but that was not its original intention. There are many other books that delve into Patek’s timepieces. The definitive book is by Alan Banbery and Martin Huber, former Patek employees which I have yet to purchase and read.
There is a complete list of all Patek model reference numbers in the appendix of the book which is a good reference for collectors and historians.
A major part of the book and the company’s history is the various buildings and headquarters that Patek had built and inhabited throughout its watchmaking years from the rue du Rhone on Lake Geneva to its current location in Plan-les-Ouates. The buildings themselves are historical sites and ultimately culminating in the Patek Philippe museum located in Geneva.
This authoritative biography is definitely not a quick read (450 pages), but it most certainly an interesting and essential read for Patek enthusiasts. Much of what makes watch collecting so fun and rewarding is learning and researching the company’s history. I find it similar to viewing masterpiece paintings with a real guide or an audio guide. More meaning can be found by researching and appreciating the history of the company and the history of the development of a particular timepiece. I strongly believe it also helps to obtain a certain desired piece if one is more informed by reading up on it.
It is a well written and easy read. The most important milestones of the company are mentioned and the book does not oversaturate us with unessential information. The illustrations are large and fantastic and I did not find one single typo in the entire read.
A strong recommendation from me.
My next book review will be John Goldberger’s “Patek Philippe Steel Watches”.
A la prochaine.